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How to Choose Trekking Poles

The right pair can change your hiking game for the better.

We go hiking and backpacking for all sorts of reasons; to escape from real-life responsibilities, to get a little exercise, or to find some freedom in the backcountry

Whether you’re 25 or 65, hitting the trail on the weekends can lead to sore feet, legs, and knees, and the stress that causes the soreness can have long term consequences. Enter trekking poles. From combating sore muscles to increasing stability and confidence, the advantages and benefits of hiking with trekking poles are nearly endless. And though once considered just for older folks, trekking poles have become a staple among weekend warriors, thru hikers, and trekkers and backpackers of all ages. Whether you’re just out for a day hike or thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, trekking poles can make the experience more comfortable and safe.

Backpacking Harris Wash outside of Escalante, UT

Advantages of Trekking Poles

  • They increase your stability when traveling with a heavy load or traversing difficult terrain.
  • Trekking poles reduce impact on your knees and other sensitive joints. When traveling downhill, they can reduce the force of impact by up to 30% making long hikes way more comfortable.
  • Poles makes you faster! Just like ski poles, trekking poles help to propel you forward.
  • Less stress on your back. Trekking poles help to keep you upright for better posture and support.
  • Trekking poles can come in handy for pitching tents or tarp shelters, so you can save weight by leaving tent poles at home.

Choosing The Right Trekking Poles

Basic Features

When you begin your search for the perfect pair of trekking poles, there are several questions you’ll need to answer to decide on the type of poles that will work best for you:

One pole or two?

This choice is largely a matter of personal preference. As my rule of thumb, I’ll carry one pole for short hikes or summit pushes for stability, and two poles for long treks and balancing your weight over the miles. Single poles will usually have wider grips and may include the ability to screw off the grip and use the pole as a support for a camera.

Flick or Twist?

There are two ways of locking down your adjustable poles once you’ve set the desired length: Flick locks and twist locks.

If you’re going to be using your poles in the winter, flick locks are your ticket. They are easy to adjust with gloves on and the flick lock system works well in sub zero temperatures, preventing system failure when the poles contract in the cold. A twist lock system is ideal for folks who will be using their poles exclusively for summer pursuits. Twist locks are easier to adjust on the fly if the tension is off because you can typically take them apart and adjust without tools, where as the flick lock system usually requires a screwdriver to adjust.

Shock absorbing or not?

If you have achy joints or creaky knees, shock-absorbing poles were made for you. They soak up more of the impact on descents so your knees don’t have to. The downsides to this technology include a slight loss of power on the ascent and decreased stability while descending. Some higher-end models have shock absorbers that can be turned on and off. This feature will add weight to your setup, so it might not be ideal for a lightweight backpacker.

 

Pole Construction

Now that you’ve narrowed your selection by type of pole, there are a few more considerations you should make in regards to pole construction:

Telescoping Poles

Telescoping poles are the original trekking pole universe. They are easy to adjust and have been around the longer than any other constructions. With telescoping poles you can choose either, two sections or three sections.

Two-section poles are more durable and are best for folks who are tough on their gear. Think snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and other heavy use applications. The major downside of two-piece poles is their large packed size and heavy trail weight. They are the tallest and heaviest option.

Three-section poles are what you’ll see most out on the trail. We’ve packed them in a suitcase for international trips, strapped them on  daypacks, and hauled them on 55L packs over dozens of miles. They don’t have the same durability compared to two-part poles but they tend to weigh less than their two-section counterpart. Tougher than folding poles and with more adjustability, you’ll find mountaineers, casual hikers, and thru hikers alike using this construction.

Folding Poles

This newer style of trekking pole features a similar design as tent poles, with a shock cord linking several lightweight shafts. They can fold up even smaller than the three-part telescoping pole and are typically lighter weight. Folding poles can come in a fixed height or with a flick lock adjustment. They’re durable enough for most uses but they’re not quite as durable as telescoping poles. These are best for trail hikers, thru hikers, and uphill skiers and splitboarders. It’s important to note that in most cases, folding poles are not adjustable enough to use in poles to set up a tent or shelter.

Materials

Trekking poles are typically made of either aluminum or carbon. Carbon will be lighter, but carbon poles can also be pricy and prone to breakage. I hear you—you’ve already dropped a pretty penny on a pack, so spending a couple hundred more on walking sticks is a hard pill to swallow. Aluminum is your friend. Aluminum is the more durable and economic option, though you’ll sacrifice when it comes to weight.

Grip

Grips are almost entirely a matter of comfort, and therefore come in different constructions that cater to a variety of needs. Foam, cork, and rubber are the most common materials used in grips.

  • Foam is the softest and perhaps the most comfortable, but may not be the best option for those who’ll be hiking in wet climates. Foam grips absorb water and tend to break down faster.
  • Cork, on the other hand, is moisture-resistant. It also becomes more comfortable with use because the cork molds to your hand, and is naturally antimicrobial so it resists stink. Downside? It’s heavier than foam, and poles with cork grips can be more expensive.
  • Rubber is not quite as comfortable as your other options but they’re the most water-resistant, making them the best choice for winter activities. Every perk has its tradeoff—water resistance can make them chafe in hot weather or on particularly sweaty hikes.

One thing you might want to look for is poles with extended grips—basically, sections of foam that go 4-5 inches down the shaft from the grip. They can be nice when you are in terrain with many ups and downs—instead of stopping to fiddle with the shaft length, you can just grab the extended grip when you need to ‘choke up’ on the pole.

Tips

Most poles will come with a carbide steel tip. You’ll have the option to choose poles with or without rubber tips. Carbide tips can be noisy and skid on hard surfaces. Some also argue they do more to damage trails. Rubber tips are quieter and great on hard surfaces like pavement and slick rock, but they falter on wet surfaces and don’t provide the same secure grip in loose dirt.

Baskets

Trekking baskets are usually quite small so they don’t get snagged in the undergrowth. Many poles give you the option of swapping out trekking baskets for powder baskets to use in the snow, making them equipped for use in all four seasons.

Using Trekking Poles

Figuring out pole height is a mix of science and preference. For your typical trail with gradual elevation gain and loss, your poles should be adjusted so your arm is bent to 90 degrees when standing upright. For steep ascents, shorten your poles so your arms can work to propel you upwards. On the descent, lengthen your poles to give you some added stability. This will be more comfortable and absorb downhill impact better. When you’re traversing a mountainside, poles are your friends for keeping you upright and stable, since you can adjust the downhill pole to be longer than the uphill pole.

 

Still have questions? Our Gearheads have used trekking poles in different climates and terrain all over the world, and can answer any questions you might have about them!

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